The Heroic Hermit in Anglo-Saxon lore
The hagiographic vitae or Lives of early Anglo-Saxon saints closely followed two expressions of the heroic, namely the warrior and the hermit. The warrior is disciplined, courageous, does not fear battle. But so, too, is the hermit. The hermit is especially heroic when evoking the character of the Christian desert hermits of 4th-century Egypt. The warrior's prowess is expressed physically, while the hermit's is more spiritual and psychological, but the early medieval Anglo-Saxon biographers saw the congruity of overlapping the mental discipline of the warrior with the physical austerities of the hermit.
Among the lives of Anglo-Saxon saints (and hermits) embodying the heroic expression are Bede's Life of St. Cuthbert and Lives of the Abbots, Eddius Stephanus' Life of Wilfrid, Felix's Life of St. Guthlac, the anonymous Life of Ceolfrith, Alcuin's Life of Willibrord, and Willibrord's Life of St. Boniface.
Historian Clinton Albertson observes that
The striking affinity between the heroic asceticism of the early saints of the Egyptian desert and those of Ireland and Celtic Britain has long been puzzled over. Direct influence seems unnecessary to explain it. All early western monasticism, even Italian, drew heavily on the East. The similarity in any event touches in other ways upon something too deep to be sufficiently explained by the accident of direct physical contact between Egypt and Ireland.
In part the nobility of spirit among Celtic Christian monks, overwhelmed the insular style of the few Roman monasteries of Britain, and would have spontaneously reproduced the character of Antony and the hermits of Egypt among contemporaries. The counterpart to the character of the desert hermits, namely the psychological character of Norse and Icelandic heroes -- though the written sagas and tales date from a later period -- expresses as an older pagan tradition. Historic contact likely came from Greece and the southwestern Mediterranean via southern Gaul (influenced by John Cassian) and Mozarabic Spain, where Syriac, Coptic, and Eastern influences in liturgy and prayer, all flowed West. As with liturgical influences, physical copies of lives of the desert hermits (Vita patrum) would have also followed ancient sea routes from Iberia to Celtic Brittany to western Ireland, the womb of Celtic Christianity.
Still, some observers doubt the indirect Egyptian influence, postulating Greek or Welsh monasticism. Additionally,
hallmarks of Celtic monasticism, such as preoccupation with learning and a devotion to pastoral activity, are not especially Egyptian. The former is partly an inheritance from Druidic tradition, reinforced by learned practices from the Christian monasteries of southern Gaul, the latter stems largely from the influence of St. Martin of Tours.
Albertson notes further that:
The Celtic pilgrimage-urge is not Egyptian. In an exhortation to monks of the Egyptian desert, St. Antony [per Athanasius, his biographer] might almost seem to be criticizing the wanderlust of the Celtic monks. "The Greeks wander through strange lands beyond the sea in quest of learning. But for us there is no need to be a pilgrim in order to find the kingdom of heaven. For long ago the Lord told us that the Kingdom of God is within you."
Albertson adds, perhaps wryly, that "Brendan is thus more akin to Odysseus than to Antony."
St. Guthlac, heroic hermit
The heroic hermit is exemplified in Anglo-Saxon hagiographical literature St. Guthlac of Croyland (673–714). Scholar Alexandra Olsen rightly calls the genre "heroic hagiography." Felix's Vita Sancti Guthlaci "comes closest to achieving the same logical and dramatic unity of construction as the Life of St. Antony," says Albertson.
What better credential for the young Guthlac to have been a soldier before deciding to become a monk, and then, two years later, deciding to become a hermit.
During his two years in the monastery, Guthlac
received his first
training in the canticles, psalms, hymns, prayers and customs of the
Church, and he set himself to imitating the particular virtues of each
one of those who were living with him -- the obedience of that one,
the humility of this one, the patience of another, the forebearance of
yet another, and the purity, temperance and agreeableness of
all. To put it briefly, he imitated the virtues of all of them in all
things. (chapter 23)
The narrative goes on to state that after these two years, "his thoughts turned to the desert."
Whenever he read about the solitary life of the monks of olden times then his heart burned with a hungry longing to seek solitude in the wilderness. To make a long story short, in the course of a few days he received the required consent of his superiors and, beginning that long journey which was to end in eternal bliss, set out to find his place of retreat.
Next, Felix describes Guthlac's equivalent of Antony's desert, in this case "a most dismal fen." He describes the swamps and bogs and "occasional black pool exuding dank miasmal mists." But Guthlac was not satisfied with this accessible place. A bystander named Tatwine describes an even more isolated island in the swamp, called Crowland, to which Guthlac insists on going. As with Cuthbert on Farne (or Antony in the desert), Felix states of Guthlac's chosen wasteland that
no settler had been stouthearted enough to live alone here on account of the phantom-demons that infested the site.
But like a warrior, the hero Guthlac boards a ship to the place, undeterred by the reputation of the place. Rotha Mary Clay writes:
Guthlac, who in his youth had ever been ready for a wild raid, was still eager for holy adventure. He was guided by Tatwine to the place of dreadful desolation. [Below: "St. Guthlac's Voyage to Crowland"; Harley Roll, British Library]
God's hero despised the foe, and with the help of heaven took up his life here all alone amid the eerie shadows of the forlorn heath.
There follow in Felix's narrative the familiar struggles demonstrating the heroic stature of Guthlac in defeating demon attacks and his own bouts of restlessness and doubt, in the style of Antony. Felix even ends his narrative with a description of Guthlac's death taken directly from the Life of St. Cuthbert.
The heroic elements of Anglo-Saxon warrior society served to elevate the hermit to the equivalent of the warrior, even transcending the warrior in the exercise of virtues and austerities. For Britain, this foundational view of hermits strengthened the hermits' resistance to regularization common in continental Europe. The continuity with desert hermit tradition, however it came across the sea, revived and extended Christian eremitism.¶
Among secondary sources are: Clinton Albertson, Anglo-Saxon Saints and Heroes. New York: Fordham University Press, 1967, especially Appendix IV: "Celtic Christianity and Egypt;" Rotha Mary Clay: Hermits and Anchorites of England. London: Methuen, 1914, especially chapter 1: "Island and Fen Recluses;" and Alexandra Olsen: Guthlac of Croyland: a Study of Heroic Hagiography. Washington, University Press of America, 1981; also Felix's Life of Saint Guthlac. edited and translated by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.